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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

SONGS I LIKE: Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty)

Just one more year and then you'd be happy
But you're cryin', you're cryin' now

Gerry Rafferty is one of those artists with a fair body of work, but people only really recognize one or two of his songs (for example he was part of the band Stealers Wheel, which had the hit "Stuck In The Middle").  Further, even when they do know a song, they rarely know who it is, or even the name, they just like it.  This song is one you probably know, even though you aren't aware of the name or the artist.  It gets regular play now but was forgotten for a time, and its called "Baker Street."
"Baker Street" is one of those timeless songs, although it has bits from the late 70s/early 80s era that were often used in commercial pop.  The music is pretty standard stuff until it gets to that sax solo and suddenly you're pulled into another place entirely, which I why I think people don't remember it well beyond that part.  Its like listening to the William Tell Overture and not remembering what it is until you get to the Lone Ranger theme.
That solo was supposed to be done on guitar, which would have made it much more ordinary and forgettable, but the studio guitarist didn't show up.  So sax player Raphael Ravenscroft stepped in and they tried out a horn version.  He hit it in one take and they all were blown away, like everyone who listens to the song.  History was made, and its one of the most iconic, well-liked riffs in music history.  Would the song have been as good with the guitar?  Possibly, there's a guitar solo near the end and its pretty good too, but the sax really sets it apart.
Baker Street is about the music industry, the emptiness Rafferty was starting to feel about his life and the entire star machine.  Music journalist Paul Gambaccini wrote about this song:
His song "Baker Street" was about how uncomfortable he felt in the star system, and what do you know, it was a giant world hit. The album City to City went to no. 1 in America, and suddenly he found that as a result of his protest, he was a bigger star than ever. And he now had more of what he didn’t like. And although he had a few more hit singles in the United States, by 1980 it was basically all over, and when I say ‘it’, I mean basically his career, because he just was not comfortable with this.
Rafferty himself said in a 2009 interview with the Sunday Express:
The music industry... is something I loathe and detest. It conjures up images of a gigantic factory spewing out parts of the machine. In many respects, this of course is exactly what it is now.
Rafferty liked to make music but he didn't like being a star, it just felt empty and pointless to him.  The touring, the interviews, all of it just was cold and pointless and he walked away from it.  To me the song evokes that early part of dawn before the sun is up, walking down an empty street in the cold.
In a way this song is an indictment of so many lives, the dreams that things will be better tomorrow but not changing anything to make it so.  The cold city that cares nothing (Rafferty was referring to London, but it could be almost any city), the day wasted with yet another party so you can sleep at night, the guys you know who have dreams but never will attain them.  It is a bit of a bleak song, but it isn't played as a dirge, just as a thoughtful piece with that amazing, soaring saxophone solo that gives you hope that maybe things don't always have to be that way.
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Friday, January 25, 2013

WOMEN IN COMBAT, II

"I think women are too valuable to be in combat."
Caspar W. Weinberger

A few months ago I wrote about women in combat situations regarding an analysis by a Marine Captain who as a woman found out what it was like to face that grueling ordeal.  In it I predicted that before the end of his term, President Obama would open up combat to women, which has just happened.
Captain Katie Petronio wrote in the Military Corps Gazette about this, which I wrote about in the above link.  In summary, she concluded that while a woman can equal or exceed men in physical fitness and ability, they cannot equal a man's ability to engage in sustained combat operations in the field:
I was a motivated, resilient second lieutenant when I deployed to Iraq for 10 months, traveling across the Marine area of operations (AO) and participating in numerous combat operations. Yet, due to the excessive amount of time I spent in full combat load... [m]y spine had compressed on nerves in my lower back causing neuropathy which compounded the symptoms of restless leg syndrome.
By the fifth month into the deployment, I had muscle atrophy in my thighs that was causing me to constantly trip and my legs to buckle with the slightest grade change. My agility during firefights and mobility on and off vehicles and perimeter walls was seriously hindering my response time and overall capability. It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender; however, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines and further compounded by gender-specific medical conditions. At the end of the 7-month deployment, and the construction of 18 PBs later, I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (which personally resulted in infertility, but is not a genetic trend in my family), which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment.
And Captain Petroino brings up a lot of stats and data on female vs male performance ability, although as she notes we have virtually no data on "female attrition or medical ailments of women who have executed sustained combat operations," as she puts it.  What we do know is that women and men are unable to compete equally in any real sport on earth.  Even in golf women have a hard time even qualifying with men.  The best women in the world simply cannot compete with the average male athelete in tennis, basketball, and other physical sports.
But wait, you say, other militaries have been using women in combat for a long time, and we haven't heard about this!  This is true, but these other militaries have rarely if ever seen hardcore long term combat operations with women involved, and the data on what happened to the women if that takes place is not available, it just isn't recorded or reported.  Sweden can have an all-woman army if it wants; they aren't going into 10-month combat operations.  Any military that doesn't actually go fight wars can consist of anything it wants, that's not going to signify.
This seems to be a shock to many people but men and women are different physically, something that is true at more than a superficial level.  Further, women's chemistry seems to be more changable, something men do not seem to deal with.  I knew a woman who had straight soft hair before she got pregnant and afterward it became extremely curly and coarse.  We are not the same, and cannot do the same things, that's just how it is.
Take a look at this picture and tell me this would be a great combat soldier:

She's not going to take the Super Serum and go through some complex technological process to become Captain America.  She's never going to be bigger or tougher.  And despite what you've seen on TV and the movies, little girls cannot beat up big mean tough bad guys.  Martial arts doesn't make you able to take out guys significantly bigger and tougher than you are if you're that dinky.
I'm sure she's a great girl, I'm sure she's loyal and honorable and brave.  That doesn't make up for physical stature and physical ability.  Someone with Muscular Dystrophy in a wheelchair can be all those things but it doesn't make you a combat soldier.

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INTERESTING MATH

"Mathematics is a game played according to certain simple rules with meaningless marks on paper."
-David Hilbert
I just saw this today on Izismile, and while I'm not interested in testing it out, the post shows three examples of it working.  The picture claims:

It was a bit puzzling to me until I worked it out.  They are using colors to indicate the location of the number (red for tens, blue for ones in the first number, for example).  They create a crosswork pattern with lines indicating the numbers by color, so the first number is horizontal, one red line and three blue.  Then the second number is vertical with one green line and two black.

Then the intersections are counted up, in a pattern like a % sign, the top left pattern has one intersection, the top right and bottom left combined equals five, and the final bottom right contains six.  You write those down in order and get the result.
Its a very odd, pictoral way to teach multiplication and while it has the advantage of being quite simple and graphic, which appeals greatly to some people, it has severe limitations.  For example, working with very big numbers requires a pretty large chart:

Second, if you want to multiply several numbers instead of just 2 you have to do it in a series of twos.  And finally, because you're not learning how to work with numbers, its going to cause some serious problems later when you get into more complex math like algebra.
Its interesting, though.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A LIFE OF SERVICE TO FIGHT OPPRESSION

"We're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared, and the country's scared.”
-President Obama

The left has a very effective trick they play with politics and policy, a dishonorable and underhanded one, but effective.  Once some policy or law they desire has passed, they insist it must stay in place or horror and doom will result.  You cannot ever, under any circumstances, repeal anything that has been passed, or it will end up in total disaster.
Take the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare").  The ACA isn't even completely implemented until next year, but when any discussion of repealing the bill is brought up, instantly the left accuses you of wanting people to die, for people to suffer from disease and misery without hope of treatment, and trots out a list of folks suffering from something with the claim they would be lost without this legislation.
Now, that's possible, although in the United States, nobody can be turned down when they require medical care.  Its illegal and besides medical facilities don't want to turn anyone away; they exist to help people in need.
In a way, everything the left claims they want to accomplish with medical care we now have: the burden of the cost is shifted to the wealthy who can afford to pay hospital bills, and away from the poor, who can get care without paying - or paying very little.  All government control of this (or their ultimate goal, socialized medicine) would accomplish is to add government middlemen to the process and tax the middle class to pick up the burden.
At any rate, you can see how this works.  I lived over 4 decades before this legislation passed, I know what it was like before then.  People weren't dying in the streets, folks got medical care.  President Clinton wasn't a rotten evil bastard for not having this legislation in place.  President Kennedy wasn't heartless and cruel for lacking the ACA during his administration.  Its all a lie designed to avoid discussion and prevent change.  Progressive?  Not so much.
And it seems to me the best way to combat this is to negate it.  Instead of trying to force through legislation on the backs of weak and corrupt congressmen more concerned about lobbyists, news reporters, and cocktail parties than they are doing the right thing or even doing their job, bypass them entirely.
If you see a need that the left talks about, if there's some lousy bill being passed or already in place, some law or program the left rammed through to take care of a problem they perceived, then we as individual citizens and conservatives should step up to take the burden ourselves.
If people are having a hard time, say, affording to buy healthy food, then we should work to make healthy food more available where possible.  If folks can't pay for transplants or other costly medical procedures they need, then we should work on setting up funds and working with medical people to make this more available.
BIG BROTHER GOVERNMENT
The problem people have these days is that they always frame every solution in terms of law and government.  How can we get the government to do this, what law can we pass to fix that.  Even Libertarians, who claim to be opposed to government solutions, often end up talking in terms of what the government can do to make things happen, even if in reverse: cutting the government, changing these laws.  Its so ingrained into us we barely notice it.  From childhood we've been buried in a pile of assumptions about the role and function of government, saved by government programs or government blamed for things that happen.  "There ought to be a law," we cry.
And there is a place and role for government - but the burden is mostly on us, individually, and as a nation of people.  Not through representatives and laws, but our personal actions and behavior.  We cannot really shake a finger of condemnation at the left for their government-centric attitude if we take the same one.  Yes, the government needs to be cut, but the answers have to come from us.  If there's a genuine need, we must fill that need ourselves.
To a large extent this is already happening, with things like orphanages, hospitals, adoption agencies, shelters, missions for street people, food banks, and so on.  Almost all of these originated with and are often still run by Christian or other religious organizations.  My church alone helps people in the local neighborhood with food, emergencies, trips, and so on.  Behind the scenes, without any attention, groups like the YWCA work constantly in your home town to help out people in need, every day.
So to a certain extent this means publicity as well, getting word out that much of the work that the left claims has to be done by government is already being done privately.  A much higher profile for organizations already doing the work that the left claims the government must do would help combat their rhetoric and disinformation.  When they claim something outrageous and false, the people dealing with that issue should be promoted twice and loud and as hard.  
Homeless people need help?  The Salvation army and Union Gospel mission are already covering that.  Kids need to find homes?  There are dozens of adoption agencies working around the clock already doing it - we just need people to stop looking overseas for kids as some kind of badge of good deeds.  See my kid is dusky in hue, I'm such a good person.
THE COST
Yes, this will all cost time and money and energy.  It means maybe doing without that extra coffee, or X-Box game, or a smaller vacation, fewer shoes and purses, whatever.  It means that we have to both pay taxes for some things getting done and volunteer, donate, and buy for the same cause locally.  If we're going to take over the government's role in these areas, there's going to be a lot of doubling up, a lot of duplication.
See, the idea on the right is that we don't need the government to have all these social programs and take taxes for them because private efforts work better and more efficiently - and that's right.  But unless we demonstrate they exist and can do the job first, people won't trust the idea.  We have to establish a safety net and help people before we wipe out the government system doing the same job, or a lot of people are gonna fall straight to the bottom as we transition.  And if we don't show it can and will be done, the left will always have that weapon to use against our ideas.
Sacrifice, giving up what you have for a better cause, is a basic conservative principle.  That concept isn't so popular on the left and libertarians (and Objectivists) don't care for it either.  But the truth is, that's how you build greatness.  Sacrifice means you personally for your own reasons are giving up - not taken away by someone else, not forced to give, but personally, voluntarily giving.
When the people who built America did so, they did it at their own expense and personal cost, sometimes everything they had, including lives.  They worked hard to build a future where their kids wouldn't have to.  They gave up almost everything to travel across the plains and set up a new life where there was nothing but resources.  And from that, the built a nation; not just any nation, but the strongest, richest nation in the history of the world, richer than every other nation combined before it.  And as America was built up, so was the rest of the world, lifted by the US economic machine.
If we're going to rebuild from the crumbling ashes of America's past we have to do so at the same cost and with the same effort.  It takes hard work, maturity, sacrifice, responsibility, and virtue to get this done.  It means we have to go without.  So yes, it means paying taxes and giving to charity.  It means working for a volunteer effort that does what the government programs do - but better, and locally.
THE PRIZE
Imagine the result of this.  If it was truly done, done well, and done broadly across America, it would mean we could replace the government programs, not just cut them.  Without the left's ability to claim doom and disaster with any plausibility, their objections to replacing the programs is greatly diminished.  And consider what would happen to the perception of the right and especially Christians in the west and America in particular.
If everyone in poor areas and all those who are needy saw and felt the effects of the right working hard to help them, that would make it pretty hard to claim the right is heartless and cares nothing for the poor.  The more they know what is being done and at what cost by whom, the more likely they are to appreciate and support what we do and why.
Christians have long known and sometimes carried this out.  Evangelism is most powerful when carried out by love and service, not speech and tract.  Jesus lived that out every day of his life on this earth, serving others and reaching out to the most needy and downtrodden.  It made him incredibly attractive and beloved - except by those in power.
Without that ammunition, the left would greatly lose its ability to create hysteria and fear; it would undermine their demonization and attacks on the right.  The left could and would still claim the same old thing, but it would lose tremendous impact because people would see and know that it wasn't true all around them.
And if the government could be replaced by local efforts and volunteerism, if we could eliminate the need for government programs by our charity and work, that would mean a more vibrant, freer economy, a richer pocketbook with lighter taxation, and an overall more healthy, stronger nation.
Our liberty would be greatly enhanced by taking over what the government does now, and the nation would benefit greatly from that as well.  It was the incredible freedom that let the US grow and build its self into a vast nation of such power and riches, and its the lack that us cutting that away.  We aren't so much that shining city on a hill any longer, but we could be, with work.
After all, it isn't a leftist principle to help those in need.  We only differ on the process. So lets put our money where our mouths are.  We don't need government to do these things, so lets prove it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A QUIZ

"Numbers can never direct the destiny of a people. Only genius can do this."

Its time for a quiz at Word Around the Net. Pencils ready? OK lets begin.  No cheating now!  The questions are all true or false, so its easy:
Economy
  1. The government should provide jobs with public works programs to assure full employment.
  2. The government should provide food to the needy and hungry.
  3. Medical care is too necessary for public life and must be provided for minimum cost by the state.
  4. Poor people should be provided clothing by the state.
  5. Child care for working mothers is a right that the government should provide.
  6. To protect consumers, the state should regulate and control what stores stock and businesses produce.
  7. If you cannot afford a home, the government should provide housing.
  8. Food must be safe and provided equally, so the government should control farms and food production.
  9. Education is too important to allow parents and small groups to control, the state should run schools.
  10. Every child should have a college education, so the state should provide the cost.
Government
  1. Government should have as much power as it needs to implement policies for the benefit of the people.
  2. Government runs best when it is led by a single, powerful and gifted individual.
  3. Multiple political parties ruin the process and having only one party would make the system run better.
  4. The military needs to be strong to protect the citizens of a nation, and citizens should be grateful for those in military service.
  5. Most people are too dumb or poorly educated to have a say in government, and their superiors should make decisions for them.
  6. Government should represent various aspects and portions of culture rather than individual people.
  7. Leaders must have the strength to do the right thing regardless of how the people vote, for their own good.
  8. Law and policy should be based on solid scientific principles, not moralistic or religious ideals.
Culture
  1. We should be proud of our culture and history, above others.
  2. Our culture should be forward-looking, working for a better tomorrow, even if that means some aspects of traditional culture have to be sacrificed.
  3. Religion is fine for personal belief but should have no impact on behavior, law, or culture.
  4. People are defined by their cultural group more than individual person.
  5. Humanity is evolving and that evolution will bring us to be better people if guided properly. 
  6. If some aspects or groups in our society hold back progress or hinder the public good, they should be removed. 
  7. Barriers between the sexes should be removed and women should enter the work force without restriction.
Philosophy
  1. There is no absolute standard of right and wrong that we all should be guided by, only the shifting mood of cultures and people.
  2. There is no absolute standard of truth and falsehood, only what cultures develop and adhere to.
  3. Mankind cannot know right or truth, they can only enforce their will on the world around them to the ends they desire.
OK now look over all your answers, how did you respond to all that? Add up all the true and false answers, without looking below.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Potpourri II

“Sincerity -- if you can fake that, you've got it made.” 
-George Burns

The list of things people believe to be true which are simply falsehoods is pretty extensive, but most don't rate a full length post in themselves.  For example, Mount Everest isn't actually the tallest mountain on earth - its the highest point on earth, but several islands are effectively taller mountains (like Mauna Kea, which is 50% taller than Everest at 33,465 feet from the sea bed).  Mother birds won't abandon a baby bird that you touch, few birds have any real sense of smell to begin with.  Glass is not actually a slow-moving liquid, those old rippled glass panes were like that to begin with because making glass is not easy.  And so on.
So without delay, here are a bunch of other commonly believed things which are absolute falsehoods, and why:
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) used to be a common additive to food, and still is used in some places, especially Chinese food.  MSG enhances flavor and has a distinct taste which is very nice, but several articles and word of mouth spread the idea that it causes migraine headaches.  Certainly some people are actually allergic to the stuff and it can be deadly to them.  However, there's no reliable evidence that MSG is actually  harmful or causes headaches in human beings.  Several well-conducted studies show there is no correlation between MSG and migraines.
Metal can be used in a microwave; for instance browning sleeves on hot pockets and other frozen microwave foods have metal in them.  If there are no sharp edges or points, the metal can generally be used, and will function as a heater.  Its just a bad idea in almost all cases.
Cooking with various alcoholic beverages does retain some of the alcohol.  Even after 2 hours of cooking, food will retain trace alcohol (5% remains), but most will have boiled off.
Gringo did not originate as a corruption of the lyrics "Green grow the lilacs" or "Green go home!" in the Mexican-American war.  It seems to have been a derivation of the word "Griego" or "greek" in Spanish as a generic term for foreigner.
Black Holes do not exponentially increase in gravity and suck everything in for light years.  This is a pretty common misconception continually portrayed in film and fiction.  A black hole, scientists believe, has the same density and gravitational pull as the star from which they think it originated.  Again, all of this is speculation to begin with, but the theory goes like this: a star implodes, collapsing to unbelievable density so that its former gigantic size is reduced to miniscule.  The gravity is the same, only the size has changed.
Meteorites often are quite cool when they hit.  Yes, the friction of air across their surface in reentry does make the outer layer heat up, but they are often so cold in space that this outer layer of heat rapidly dissipates and many are found with frost on them.
Napoleon was not unusually short.  The confusion comes from revolutionary France's toying with measurements of all sorts, and for a time they had a different system of inches and feet (longer).  He is listed as being 5'2, but his actual height was around 5'5, which is pretty much average for the time (even if its a bit short today).  His nickname "Little Corporal" seems to be affectionate rather than descriptive; it was used long after he was promoted beyond corporal.
Roman meals did not include eating until vomiting was induced, so you could eat more.  Not only do few people even want to consider eating after vomiting, but there's scant historical evidence of any such behavior - and that only considered awful and limited to some very odd people.  The "vomitorium" was not a set of troughs to upchuck into, rather an entryway which would "vomit" spectators into a seating area.
Medieval people did not tend to die at 30, despite that being the life expectancy.  The problem comes with how life expectancies are determined; they are averages.  So many children died very young that they pulled down the average age that people died at.  A medieval person who survived childhood to age 25 could be expected to live into their 60s.  If abortion was factored into life expectancies, I suspect we'd see the numbers plunge to nearly 30 in the west today.  Life expectancy does not equal lifespan.
Iron Maiden is a particularly iconic medieval horror, there's no evidence they were ever used in medieval periods.  In fact, it appears that they were fakes cobbled together in the 18th century for display out of various other devices.  There is no online source of this, but plenty of scholarship and several books about it and how it was created for display.
Vikings didn't wear horns on their helmets.  No viking helmet has ever been found with such a device, no imagery or illustration from the time shows any such helmet.  It seems to have originated with a performance of Wagner's opera  Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876.  Sorry, Hagar the Horrible.
Marco Polo didn't bring pasta back from the court of Kublai Khan, it was already in his home town.  He does describe essentially lasagna in his memoirs, but in a manner that indicates he was familiar with it.  Small surprise, since Durum wheat had been imported into Italy and Sicily in the 7th century by Libyan conquerors and pasta was already known to the locals.  This myth appears to come from the Macaroni Journal, published in the US to promote and sell pasta in America (again, from books).
Hemp was not the material the US Constitution was written on, it is parchment.  It is likely that they used hemp for scratch paper and early draft.
Sharks do get cancer.  That myth came from a book intended to sell shark cartilage as a cure for cancer, and is a flat out falsehood.  However, shark cartilage does seem to help a lot with common arthritis pain.
Bats are not blind.  Some have excellent vision and don't even use echolocation.  Bats also rarely have rabies (.5%), are not rodents, and almost never, ever get tangled up in anyone's hair.
Lightning will strike more than once in a single spot; that's why its a bad idea to be the highest point in a storm.  Tall buildings such as the Empire State building are struck dozens of times a year.  A "single" strike of lightning sometimes consists of many, many arcs over and over on the same spot in an instant of time.
Well that's good enough for now.  There are scores more, including the fact that Wikipedia isn't completely worthless as a research tool; its just lousy to use as a primary source.  Check the links and use their data for your research.  Consider Wikipedia a link compiler, not an encyclopedia for most subjects.
This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

BARNES AND NO MORE?

"The avid readers who want rare titles are going to end up on the internet"

According to recent reports, such as one at the Daily Beast, the book seller Barnes & Noble is going to shut down their megastores.  It was only a matter of time, although B&N was smarter than many of its competitors and got into online sales very early.
The old system of printing up tons of books, shipping them to distributors and big stores and hoping to sell enough to make up the cost is just not working any more.  See, a publisher would print up 1000 copies or whatever and ship them out to stores.  Stores would take them on consignment as it were, shipping back any unsold copies to the publisher.  If it all worked out, the publisher would sell enough to recoup the costs of unsold books (or sell them all), and give the author like 5% of the cover price in royalties.
But not enough books are selling.  Sure, there will be a big hit like Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray (for whatever bizarre reason), but for the most part, people just aren't buying books like they used to.  There are a lot of reasons, from price to economy to idiots not wanting to read and to electronic readers, but it all adds up to one thing: you can't keep a megastore open any longer; you just don't make enough money at it.
That's both bad and good.  Its good in that it means local small stores will do better without the big competitors.  Its bad because it means the era of fairly cheap books is over.
Back when the printing press first came out, books were very expensive and only the wealthy could really afford to buy one.  Printing was slow and costly and only a smaller portion of the population could read to begin with.  Books were a mark of wealth and luxury, and a well-stocked library was the sign of a great man even if they were mostly unread.
It seems like we may be moving back to that model now, with new print books becoming more luxury items as they go to print-on-demand (POD) which is more expensive than mass printing.  POD will get more efficient and less costly but will not be as cheap as printing multiple copies at least in the foreseeable future.
Used books, though, I expect to become more and more popular as they become retro and a symbol of learning and academia.  Holding a book in your hand will not only become hip, but will be an icon of someone who has studied and understands more, I suspect.
I want an electronic reader at some point, even I can afford a 99 cent book once in a while.  But I will always love books.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Fascism

We demand that the state be charged first with providing the opportunity for a livelihood and way of life for the citizens.
Plank 7 of Nazi Party platform

Although it has been nearly 75 years now, the holocaust and the events of World War 2 are still seared into the consciousness of most people.  Every few years, Hollywood puts out another film about the subject, to help people to never forget.  As the few remaining concentration camp survivors die, the memory will start to fade, though.  And the voices of denial will grow in strength.  Its one thing to claim it all never happened alone, but when someone comes and shows you the tattoo on their arm, things get a bit more real.
"Nazi" is one of those words people throw around, with "fascist," usually without any real understanding of their meanings.  When the cops pull someone over, people cry fascist.  When a Republican mentions cutting spending, they cry Nazi.  Its a catch-all insult for people in authority that you don't like, really.  Sometimes people think it through a bit more and use it interchangeably for tyrant or dictator; as if everyone who abuses authority is a fascist.
The general consensus in popular culture and academia that fascists were all right wingers, that when you take the right wing of politics too far, it becomes fascism; the continuum is usually expressed this way:
Contiuum
And if you ask most people, that's what they'll say: fascists, Nazis, were right wingers.  They say that conservatives are too close to that, practically one foot in the jack boot, as it were.  Leftists are fond of using that term to describe people on the right that they don't like, too.
But is it true, is fascism really right wing gone too far?  Are right wingers leaning toward fascism?  Well the problem with this answer is that fascism doesn't come in only one brand; to make matters worse people are mixing their categories when they talk about the subject.
There was no single type of fascism and there still isn't to this day.  People use Nazi and fascist as if they are synonyms, but they are not.  Nazis were a type of fascist, fascism covers a larger range of systems than simple National Socialism.
Even during World War 2 there were three brands of fascism active: Nazis, Falangists, and Italian Fascists.  Each one had its distinctives and variations; Falangists for example tried to wed shreds of Roman Catholic Christianity with fascist concepts.  All had some basic concepts held in common, however.
For a more detailed examination of the history of Fascism, read my essay on the topic, but in brief, fascism holds certain specific policy and ideology positions:
  • Nationalism; the supremacy of the given nation of culture that it arises in.  Other cultures and peoples are inferior to the chosen one.
  • Totalitarianism; the obedience and even veneration of a single strong leader.  This one person has the vision, will, and right ideas to lead the world to a better future and must be obeyed without question.
  • Single Party State; the dominant party can have no rivals.  Only one party is allowed power because they are the ones with the correct ideas and the will to implement them.
  • Dictatorship; there is no vote or citizen power, only orders from the all-powerful government. 
  • Authoritarian Democracy; the government claims to represent various sections of society equally.
  • Social Darwinism; wherein superior groups and cultural movements eclipse and replace weaker, inferior ones.  Corrupt or inferior social groups and movements are destroyed to make way for the superior.
  • Militarism; the military as an expression of strength and state will is venerated and given asolute power, and is a major portion of the economy.
  • The New Man; an idea that through proper policy, breeding, and cultural darwinism, a better humanity will result.  This is usually tied to evolution, with the idea of some humans being more evolved than others.
  • The Will to Power; from Friedrich Nietzsche who explained that life is meaningless and only those with the strongest will who will enforce their ideas on reality are fit to lead.
  • The Third Position; fascists rejected capitalism and communism both as failed and weak, claiming they had a third way blending parts of both with a new system.
  • Socialism; fascists to various degrees socialized portions of the economy, and all businesses were under the absolute control of an unquestioned central state.
As you can see, the "third position" concept is the best way of understanding fascism.  It was neither left nor right in its entirety; in truth, it wedded both in various ways such as nationalism and militarism mixed with socialist economic and social policies.
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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

THE WORLD'S GREATEST... WHAT?

"I'm a detective. If I worship anything - it's logic." 
-Batman: Absolution

One of the most enduring fictional characters created in the last 100 years is Batman.  For some reason the detective behind a bat mask was such an iconic and interesting character that he's reached the levels of global fame and interest as characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula.  Almost everyone around the world recognizes that bat-symbol and knows about the character.
That's fascinating to me because the concept seems so ridiculous on paper but in execution is so effective.  A man puts on a costume that looks like a bat and goes hunting criminals, frightening them with his appearance.  Gotcha.
When the second Batman movie came out in 1989, it created an explosion of interest in the character and revitalized the comic book.  Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and the rest of the cast created a fascinating version of the story under director Tim Burton.  Some consider Keaton the best screen Batman ever, better than Christian Bale.  The general consensus online seems to be that Bale's suave and clever Bruce Wayne is a better portrayal than Keaton's baffled, absent minded one.
According to a recent podcast, Keaton wanted the third Batman movie to be about the character's origin:
You look at where [Nolan] went, which is exactly what I wanted to do when I was having meetings about the third one. I said you want to see how this guy started. We've got a chance here to fix whatever we kind of maybe went off. This could be brilliant. [They] didn't want to do it, so I didn't want to do it.
Now whether that's hindsight and ego or actual fact, it certainly would have been a better film than Batman Forever with Val Kilmer.  I like Kilmer a lot as an actor but he brought nothing interesting to the role and the movie was slouching heavily off into the 1960's campy version of the concept, which is exactly what people hated.  The reason the Keaton Batman movie did so well is that it took the character and the setting seriously, that it treated the idea as if it was reasonable and mature instead of a goof or childish.  By the time we got Batman and Robin, the writers and director had turned it all into a farce again and people despised it.
The thing is, Batman has really lost his way over the years.  The writing has often been brilliant, the art amazing and some of these movies have truly been wonderful for all their flaws.  Batman Begins was a very good film on all levels, except one: Batman is a detective.
In the comic book series, Batman has gone through a lot of changes and events (but always ends up basically the same), but none more drastic than this one.  Even the crappy 60's series was more about Batman the detective than modern stories are.  During Mark Waid's brilliant run on Justice League, he came up with a way to fit Batman into the cast of immensely powerful characters.
Think about that a moment: The Justice League is a comic made up of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, with Superman, the Green Lantern (who can do anything he has the willpower and ability to think of), The Flash (who can outrun light and travel through time), Martian Manhunter (about the same as superman, with telepathy and shapeshifting), Wonder Woman (almost as strong as Superman) and so on are all on the team.  Then there's Batman, a dude with a mask and some gadgets.  How do you craft a menace that threatens Superman and doesn't atomize Batman instantly?
Well Waid worked it out by having Batman be the planner, the tactician, the man who always has a plan.  And that's where the character went from then on in the comics.  He became a martial artist who always has a brilliant plan.   And that works, its fascinating and it fits in a certain way; he's so obsessed and nuts that he plans everything out decades in advance, and has a contingency to fit every situation.
The problem is, that's not what the character was about.  He is called "the world's greatest detective."  Batman's original comic book is Detective Comics.  His series for half a century was about being a detective, about solving crime and following clues.  The batcave was more a lab and a research center than an armory.  The Joker was a flamboyant criminal that Batman had to follow clues and examine evidence to catch and stop. One of the nicknames for Batman is "The Detective," which is how Ra's Al Ghul usually refers to him.
And while Batman was always very smart, he wasn't really portrayed as the most brilliant human being that ever walked the earth, he was just really good at being a detective and coming up with gadgets.  He's also become more insane as time has gone on, but that's not much of a stretch.
The problem is, writing detective stories is hard, at least writing a good, interesting one.  Its much easier to write a story about a really rich guy who can beat everyone up and has neat gadgets (the most recent Batman films) or the guy who has plans for every situation.  Being a detective requires a lot of intelligence on the part of the author and is more subtle to portray.
Its not that I dislike the tactician role, it works very well.  Its that I miss the detective, which was Batman's primary claim to fame.  He could figure out the cases the cops couldn't.  They'd put that spotlight up to bring him in for consultation, not to have him go beat the tar out of enemies.
Consider the latest three films: just how much actual detective work does Batman do?  Granted, none of these movies are actually about Batman the character (they're about ideas and examining concepts with the setting of Batman, really), but in none of them does Batman do any real detective work, he simply responds to situations and uses his gadgets to get bad guys the cops can't.
Even the Keaton era Batman films actually involved more detective work than the most recent movies, even if it was awful storytelling.  And to me, that's a bit of a loss.  Because today when people think about Batman, they don't think "brilliant detective" they think "badass with cool technology."  Batman was more Sherlock Holmes than Jason Bourne, but that's not where the writers go these days.  Maybe it wouldn't sell as well, but how can you tell without giving it a try?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

BIG GOVERNMENT AND ITS PROJECTS

"At least the bridge to nowhere would have given us a bridge."

A few weeks ago I posted a bit on libraries and mentioned the Salem Public Library and praised it.  The place is pretty impressive for a fairly small city, although Salem is growing to match its size and scope.  What I didn't realize at the time was that the library is actually one of the many that millionaire Andrew Carnegie built around the country.  The library started out with volunteers of the Salem Women's Club and Carnegie built a nice new building in 1904.  So it wasn't a government effort in any way, although the city did take some of the costs and the new building eventually.  To this day the bulk of the library's expenses come from private sources such as Friends of the Salem Public Library.  If I was some kind of millionaire I'd donate money to it as well.
However, there are times in the past when the government has been responsible for some pretty major projects.  The transcontinental railroad, for example, was built with significant assistance from the federal government - loans and land grants, mostly.  Once the railroads were in place they earned hundreds of millions of dollars in short order and the loans were paid back, of course.
The bulk of the big government projects started under FDR, during the great depression.  Following the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, the Roosevelt administration spent vast sums of money on the theory that with enough government infusion of cash into the economy, even if the debt became vast, it would get the ball rolling and turn things around.  So the Tennessee Valley Authority brought power and plumbing to areas that had never seen it in the south, building dams, roads, electrical networks, coal plants, and so on.
The Hoover Dam, the Apollo Space Project, the Interstate Highway System, all were big government projects to enhance the nation and bring greater economic prosperity.  Each new project was justified on the basis of the common good and enriching the nation in the process.  Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't.  There is good evidence and there are better arguments that the FDR spending prolonged the depression, but other arguments that it pulled us out - particularly through spending on the war.
Whether it was the Keynesian spending or the fact that the US was the only major intact industrial country on earth after WW2 that turned things around is a matter of some debate; perhaps it was both, the more I learn about macroeconomics the more I think its too complex a subject to make absolute statements about.
What is consistent about all this spending is one theme: tangible, actual benefits.  Even if you cannot pinpoint an exact economic benefit, much of this spending helps a nation feel greater pride and have greater prestige worldwide.  That's why totalitarian nations, particularly Communist ones, tend to do a lot of this sort of spending.
Russia for years blew millions on huge projects like dams on the rivers, beautiful vast railway stations, and more.  The Virgin Lands Project turned huge sections of the Taiga into farming territory (which only lasted a few years before creating a huge dustbowl because of idiotic agricultural theories).  The space race especially was a huge project, launching the world's first satellite, the first creature in orbit, and many other firsts.
North Korea built an entire city at the border of South Korea meant to be an enticement, showing off the glory of the north.  Nobody lives in it, the purpose of the city is a Potempkin, a fake meant to fool people.  China builds huge things regularly, like most of a city for the Olympics which was so effective a falsehood Democrats from Joe Biden to Thomas Friedman have praised China over and over after seeing it.  Soviet Russia used to do the same thing, as did Nazi Germany.
These kind of projects are very public to make the nation seem like a world leader and to bring praise and admiration for the government and system of the nation. See what Communism can achieve?  You should be a commie too!  Whether that convinces anyone or not, the overall project is to make people think better of a nation.
And if you're going to have big spending, at least the spending should accomplish something valuable.  If you are going to put the nation into debt greater than the gross national product, at least you got something out of it like a huge dam to be proud of that can run Las Vegas.  If you're going to bankrupt the country, at least provide jobs, electricity, and water to rural areas.  If you dig a canal across the nation of Panama, you connect two oceans and speed shipping by weeks.
But look today at our spending; what's being accomplished?  The nation is in debt so vast that even the greatest, richest economy in the history of the world is in debt so great it cannot be paid off even by taxing the nation 100%.  The interest alone is more than a trillion dollars a year.  And what do we get from it?
Our infrastructure is crumbling.  Bridges are collapsing, they canceled manned space flight, Cities are facing water shortages and power outages, the electrical network is strained every summer so bad the engineers are holding their breath hoping at best for brownouts, on and on.  The only big project that gets discussed is high speed rail, which is like building a better horse-drawn carriage (especially with the promising development of self-driven cars).
Sure, President Obama and his hand picked team of Wiley E Coyote-level geniuses poured billions into "green tech" thinking it would be the wonder economy of the future, and had the same level of success that every nation has when they tried it: complete failure.  Company after company collapsed into bankruptcy, cars exploding into flame, and businesses moving out of the country.  So even the one attempt to actually spend on some sort of results was a horrible failure.
So what do we get?  What do we get from the nearly trillion-dollar stimulus (much of which is ongoing, rather than one-time spending)?  A lot deeper in debt.  We propped up state governments a little bit longer so they could avoid restructuring their spending.  Public employee unions got to keep their pensions a bit longer, without any concessions.
From a previous post on this subject, here's a breakdown of one state - and its representative of the overall spending from the stimulus package:
here's what the breakdown was for the more than $3,000,000,000 Alabama got:
  •     health and human services 39.79%
  •     education 18.13%
  •     workforce 17.76%
  •     transportation and infrastructure 12.77%
  •     housing 2.2%
  •     public safety 4.7%
  •     energy 2.47%
  •     environment 2.17%
That's not atypical for most states. The bulk went to food stamp assistance, medicaid payments, TANF welfare, unemployment benefits, and so on. In particular Alabama saw a lot of the money go to black-targeted spending, such as the Tuskegee Institute which got $14 million in stimulus dollars. The University of Alabama Birmingham received $225,471.04 to study the “Etiology of Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke.”
Its one thing to spend a huge amount of money plunging yourself into debt and get results, but to spend it all and get nothing but maintaining the status quo a bit longer?Its almost as if the people in charge saw the Soviet Union spend its self into collapse and thought "that's the economic plan we need!"  Because by the late 80s, the soviets weren't doing any major projects any longer.  They were struggling to just survive, and spending more and more to win the arms race.  They destroyed themselves in the process.
And that's what we have to face: a government run by mediocre thinkers at best with vague concepts of Keynesian economics but unable to even give results.  Their theorizing is so detached from reality we don't even get much work on existing projects - under 13% of the money for infrastructure?
Big government is unconstitutional but at this point, that doesn't even matter.  The constitution is just so much shredded packing material for yet another spending bill to be stored in.  But big government that doesn't even give us anything?  What's the point of that?  The Democrats aren't even any good at tax and spend politics any longer.